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Frontline feedback is essential for policy, might have spared DHS from robodebt fury

In hindsight, Department of Social Services secretary Kathryn Campbell believes Centrelink’s robodebt letters would not have stirred so much public anger if there was more “co-design” at the outset.

“I know it sounds like a trendy word, but it’s really important that we actually do design these systems with the intended recipient included,” she told members of the Institute of Public Administration Australia in a speech on Wednesday morning.

“It’s fair to say that some policy will be welcomed by citizens, and some policy, less so. But my experience is, if you engage with the citizen, they will give you feedback on how best to deliver the policy, regardless of whether they like it or not.”

The speech focused on the valuable lessons that can be learned from managing service delivery, and applying them to policy development. It was an appropriate topic for Campbell, who moved across to DSS in last September’s big secretarial reshuffle after over six years leading Human Services, the service delivery arm of the same portfolio.

“Delivery can’t just be an add-on, something you throw over the fence and hope it will all go well,” she argued. “It has to be integrated and thought through, and we need people with appropriate skills and the appropriate passion to want to deliver things.”

Elsewhere, the Australian Public Service does little service delivery; Campbell said her colleagues often felt their job was done once cabinet reached a decision. But to be effective at senior level, she believes public servants need solid experience of getting their hands dirty in implementation, and should stop looking down on it as the poor cousin of policy development.

It’s a common view but Campbell went further, arguing that significant experience of both domains – policy development and implementation – should be a mandatory requirement for all promotions to deputy secretary level.

To give senior executives more opportunity to gain that experience in “going from idea to action” and improve the image of service delivery skills, she also called for a formal secondment program with DHS to be established.

The DSS chief said she was personally “obsessed” with applying lessons from the frontlines of the federal government’s direct interactions with Australians to policy in her new role, speaking to a packed house of IPAA colleagues, including the secretaries of many other federal departments.

“Delivery sharpens the mind on the end point” of policy, in her view, but she thinks those skills are “not as well valued in the Commonwealth as they should be” and suspects a lot public servants are also afraid of the frontline.

“It’s hard work. There’s often nowhere to hide. If something goes wrong, it often becomes apparent very quickly, and sometimes ends up in the public domain.”

She added that managing service delivery “builds resilience” and encourages public servants to get over their discomfort at having to openly address things that go wrong in government.

L-R: Frances Adamson, Kathy Leigh, Chris Moraitis, Kathryn Campbell, Robert Stefanic, Glenys Beauchamp and Daryl Quinlivan.

Co-design and clear calls to action — or no action

Whether it’s through one-on-one interviews, focus groups or another channel, Campbell said the importance of getting genuine feedback and applying it before “the rubber hits the road” had often been underestimated, including by her former department.

“So, it’s fair to say, when DHS rolled out the online compliance initiative which went on to be known as ‘robodebt’ … we didn’t do quite as much co-design as we should have,” she said.

She accepts it was a major fail that for so many recipients of the infamous letters, “the first they heard about it was when the debt collector rocked up to ask them to repay the debt” but also believes there would have been far less outcry with better consultation.

This kind of human-centred design might have produced robodebt letters with a more obvious “call to action” that got the government’s message across more clearly, in Campbell’s view. “We didn’t tell the community what to do,” she said.

“We didn’t say, ‘When you get this letter, make sure you respond.’ We didn’t tell the rest of the community what we were actually trying to achieve, so we had lots of people thinking we were mean and nasty and picking on people over Christmas … even though it had been going for six months before.”

Later, in an example of more successful implementation by Human Services, she recalled the department had to convey to aged pensioners that they actually should do nothing at all, unless they met certain criteria. It worked.

“While the policy continued to be debated, the implementation did not attract criticism, and I think that’s how public policy should be,” she said. “It should be a debate of the ideas, rather than the administration.”

Campbell also thinks sending the robodebt letters in January meant the backlash against the policy, amplified by poor delivery, got unusually wide news coverage because not much happens at that time of year.

The DHS Design Hub had been “invaluable” in the department’s efforts to recover and improve the process, according to its former secretary.

“We brought in recipients and asked them how they wanted to engage with us in this process – and I remember one letter the minister and I personally worked on, and we thought it was pretty special, we thought we’d got it, it was in plain English – and they hated it.

“It was a powerful lesson that we might have thought we were explaining it properly, but we weren’t, and that wasn’t giving them the information they needed to carry out what we wanted them to do.”

Human Services also hired a “chief citizen experience officer” at that point and a private sector consultant who remains engaged by the department to advise on improving communications.

In another more positive example, she said DHS recognised in 2016 that “some jobseekers were so confused about what they needed to do, they were inadvertently finding themselves non-compliant” with rules designed to encourage them to look for work, even when they were genuinely doing so.

The framework was simplified in a cross-agency project, using the well-understood concept of demerit points, and the mechanism for identifying vulnerable people who need assistance was strengthened as well. This was a “great success” in Campbell’s eyes.

Applying lessons learned to avoid the same mistakes

There were also lessons to be learned from the roll-out of the National Disability Insurance Scheme. Halfway through 2016, Campbell said, “it became clear that [planning] hadn’t actually captured all the risks that were in play” – particularly how “disruptive” the scheme would be to existing disability care and service providers in the market, which has to expand massively for the NDIS to work.

“So in hindsight, we think that the planning probably should have involved DSS, DHS, a bit more,” she said.

Fixing problems after they emerge is never easy. The minister set up weekly meetings between the heads of the National Disability Insurance Agency and the two departments to belatedly address the issues for providers.

“And the staff who worked for us found it a pretty onerous activity, and I think … if we had done some better planning upfront, we probably wouldn’t have ended up in that space,” Campbell said.

On the bright side, she said a lesson was learned and shared immediately with the Department of Education, which applied it in rolling out childcare reforms without much negative reaction.

The next big federal delivery challenge is the national redress scheme for victims of childhood institutional sexual abuse, and Campbell thinks it is going well. Importantly, DSS and DHS worked together on their respective jobs: policy development and planning the roll-out.

“We’ve co-designed with advocacy groups, we’ve made sure we’ve got clear and sensitive communication, and staff have been trained by trauma specialists to work with these survivors,” Campbell said.

“And we’re three months in and we’re continuing to monitor it every week. We’re continuing to monitor the reactions of survivors, because it is very traumatic, and we’re working to adjust process and learn by doing.

“And we’ll continue to monitor that for a long time to come to make sure this very sensitive policy is delivered without criticism [of the delivery].”

The balance between confidentiality and consultation

While stressing that “early and comprehensive” planning and consultation with citizens is crucial to successful implementation, it is challenging for public servants to find the time and space. Governments often trade off the value of consultation in policy development for the political value of confidentiality.

Campbell encouraged her colleagues to plan implementation as early as possible, but therein lies the difficulty. Any kind of public consultation that takes place before the announcement has to be done in a quiet and guarded manner. Once they’ve announced, ministers generally want things to start moving rapidly.

The DSS secretary said she had noticed people on the government side becoming more open to departments “taking the time to get it right” in response to one question from the audience, suggesting there is growing awareness that pushing to meet a deadline for political reasons is counterproductive if it leads to an implementation fiasco.

Campbell believes that getting service delivery right could go a long way to shoring up the flagging levels of public confidence in the political system and the institutions of government, while not being the only factor.

“To retain trust, we need to develop quality policy and be able to deliver it effectively and efficiently,” she told her colleagues.

She’s not the first to say it, but it certainly bears repeating that these two capabilities should feed off each other to form a virtuous policy cycle.

“Early and fulsome engagement is the best way to develop policy that takes into consideration delivery issues and ensures that the citizen experience and policy outcome are what was intended,” Campbell said.

“Involving service delivery early in that cycle is the best way to provide good advice. Service delivery entities often have insights into the behaviour of recipients that will shape how we deliver the policy.

“Productive engagement requires policy development and delivery staff to understand each other and to trust each other. Sometimes, policy departments are trying to keep things very quiet, because we don’t want things to leak, but that often risks not [having] a fulsome piece of advice to give to government, so a balance needs to be struck.”

All images: RLDI / IPAA ACT. Video by contentgroup.

Author Bio

Stephen Easton

Stephen Easton is a journalist at The Mandarin based in Canberra. He's previously reported for Canberra CityNews and worked on industry titles for The Intermedia Group.